Celebrities speak out on the Israel-Hamas war, bringing media and backlash The Middle East crisis has sharply divided Hollywood. Celebrities who've spoken out have lost jobs and been harassed. But there's a long history of celebrities lending their voices to bigger causes.

When celebrities show up to protest, the media follows — but so does the backlash

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Actor Hunter Schafer of the HBO series "Euphoria" was one of the protesters arrested in New York earlier this week. She and more than a hundred other people were calling for an Israeli cease-fire in Gaza. Schafer is just one of many artists taking a stance on the Middle East crisis. In this age of influence culture, celebrities often get more attention than politicians do, but they can face backlash. NPR's Elizabeth Blair looks at the role of celebrity activism past and present.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Celebrities have long said out loud what a lot of people are thinking. Just listen to Jane Fonda in a 1973 TV interview with KQED about the Vietnam War.

JANE FONDA: What business have we to try to exterminate a people? My father fought against people in the Second World War who were trying to exterminate a people. I don't think today we should repudiate everything that our fathers fought against - fought for in the Second World War, repudiate the democratic ideals that our country was founded on...

BLAIR: Fonda was widely criticized for things she said about U.S. troops in Vietnam, but her antiwar stance resonated with millions of people. It still does.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Let Gaza live. Let Gaza live. Let Gaza live.

BLAIR: At a recent protest on Capitol Hill, Oscar-winning actor and "Thelma And Louise" star Susan Sarandon showed up. Last November she was dropped by her agents, UTA, United Talent Agency, because of a speech she gave at a pro-Palestinian rally.

SUSAN SARANDON: And I was shocked when I was fired from UTA, both my agents that I'd been with for 10 years, who I was - felt close to.

BLAIR: But that career setback has not slowed her down. Sarandon is a lifelong activist.

SARANDON: It's a personality flaw. I mean, when I was little, I thought that my dolls all came alive at midnight, and I rotated their dresses so one doll didn't have all the nice dresses all the time. Anything that's unfair always really hurt me.

BLAIR: She recently walked the halls of Congress with activists from CODEPINK. The feminist group alerted the press she was coming. NBC, Al Jazeera and other outlets showed up. As a crowd of cameras and protesters followed Sarandon, I asked CODEPINK's co-founder Medea Benjamin what it meant to have her there.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Oh, my goodness. It's so important. We've been walking these halls for three months, and nobody pays attention to us, especially the Congresspeople. But having her with us brings out the media, and we get the Congress people themselves.

BLAIR: Not all of the Congress people. Sarandon met with Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush, but Ritchie Torres refused to see her. Sarandon told reporters she suspected he wouldn't meet with her because he receives money from AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On social media, Torres accused Sarandon of trafficking in, quote, "antisemitic victim blaming."

SARAH KING: We often see celebrities getting a lot of backlash when they speak out about foreign policy.

BLAIR: Sarah King is an assistant professor in the history, political science and philosophy department at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

KING: That is not their field, and they're generally seen as not having particular expertise in those issues. So this is true whether we're looking at the Cold War or the Vietnam War or the war in Iraq or now U.S. support for Israel and its bombardment of Gaza.

BLAIR: King says criticism can be especially harsh towards celebrity activists who are women. She points to the difference in how Jane Fonda's activism was described compared to actor Donald Sutherland's.

KING: He is discussed as taking a stand, whereas Jane Fonda is described in much more negative terms. There's a Life magazine article with the phrase prominently, nag, nag, nag.

BLAIR: And now with social media...

ALYSSA MILANO: There's no way to not be exposed to the vitriol.

BLAIR: Actor Alyssa Milano first became an activist in the late 1980s, and over time, she's seen the good and the bad of it. When she starred in the hit sitcom "Who's The Boss?," one of her fans was a teenager named Ryan White, who was HIV-positive. The two became friends.

MILANO: He asked me to go on TV to kiss him to prove that you couldn't get HIV/AIDS from casual contact.

BLAIR: Milano agreed and kissed White on the cheek on "The Phil Donahue Show."

MILANO: It was the first time that my being an actor, being on TV had a purpose that was bigger than I was.

BLAIR: But lately, activism has been fraught. Milano is a UNICEF national ambassador. After October 7, she used her social media platform to share UNICEF's messages and quickly found out why people are fearful of speaking out.

MILANO: I felt like every time I posted from this place of peace, I was a terrorist sympathizer, or I did not fight strong enough for the oppression of the Palestinian people.

BLAIR: If an actor believes enough in a cause, Harry Belafonte once said, he should speak up for it, no matter his position. And celebrities have taken a range of positions. Debra Messing of the hit sitcom "Will And Grace" has been outspoken in her support of Israel. Here she is speaking to some 300,000 people in D.C. during the March for Israel last November.


DEBRA MESSING: We will pray for the success of the IDF in a war Israel did not start and did not want but a war Israel will win.

BLAIR: Messing traveled to Israel and met with family members of hostages held by Hamas and posted those visits on social media.


MESSING: I had to show everyone here that, you know, you're not forgotten and...

BLAIR: Her trip was organized by the pro-Israel non-profit Creative Community for Peace. Executive director Ari Ingel says they want celebrities to...

ARI INGEL: Bear witness to what happened at the kibbutzim, to meet people and survivors of the attack. And so we thought it was important for people to - once again, if they want to be educated, we feel it's the best thing to do - is go see for yourself.

MESSING: Messing visited a tunnel built by Hamas but did not spend time in Gaza. She and others have been blasted on social media for only talking about one side of the conflict and ignoring the humanitarian crisis facing Palestinians. The war of words between activists and anyone else who wants to weigh in has been ugly. But Ari Engel says the silence following Hamas' deadly attack on October 7 was also troubling. He points to the Writers Guild of America waiting more than two weeks to comment.

INGEL: I think a lot of Jews in the entertainment community felt abandoned.

RANIA BATRICE: For better or worse, we live in a time and space in society where celebrity voices oftentimes matter more than most.

BLAIR: And Rania Batrice expects them to speak up. She spearheaded the Artists4Ceasefire letter that's been signed by more than 300 individuals. She says many celebrities were discouraged from signing the letter by their agents or publicists.

BATRICE: As much as I sort of have this expectation that people will step up and utilize their privilege and their platforms, I also am incredibly grateful for those artists who still stepped up despite having all of these voices in their ears telling them not to do it.

BLAIR: Actor Melissa Barrera says she will continue to step up. She was fired from the cast of the next "Scream" movie when she posted pro-Palestinian messages on social media. But instead of retreating, she doubled down. She recently joined a protest calling for a cease-fire at the Sundance Film Festival and expressed no regrets to the Associated Press.


MELISSA BARRERA: Honestly, I feel like I finally am becoming who I'm supposed to be.

BLAIR: Artists, a publicist told me, are supposed to show emotion. That's the whole point of art. He preferred not to be interviewed. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.


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